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       Black Jack, p.28

           Max Brand
 

  CHAPTER 28

  There was no Kate at breakfast the next morning. She had left the houseat dawn with her horse.

  "May be night before she comes back," said her father. "No telling howfar she'll go. May be tomorrow before she shows up."

  It made Terry thoughtful for reasons which he himself did not understand.He had a peculiar desire to climb into the saddle on El Sangre and trailher across the hills. But he was very quickly brought to the reality thatif he chose to make himself a laboring man and work out the three hundreddollars he would not take back from Joe Pollard, the big man was nowdisposed to make him live up to his word.

  He was sent out with an ax and ordered to attack a stout grove of thepines for firewood. But he quickly resigned himself to the work. Whatevergloom he felt disappeared with the first stroke that sunk the edge deepinto the soft wood. The next stroke broke out a great chip, and aresinous, fresh smell came up to him.

  He made quick work of the first tree, working the morning chill out ofhis body, and as he warmed to his labor, the long muscles of arms andshoulders limbering, the blows fell in a shower. The sturdy pines fellone by one, and he stripped them of branches with long, sweeping blows ofthe ax, shearing off several at a stroke. He was not an expert axman, buthe knew enough about that cunning craft to make his blows tell, and acontinual desire to sing welled up in him.

  Once, to breathe after the heavy labor, he stepped to the edge of thelittle grove. The sun was sparkling in the tops of the trees; the valleydropped far away below him. He felt as one who stands on the top of theworld. There was flash and gleam of red; there stood El Sangre in thecorral below him; the stallion raised his head and whinnied in reply tothe master's whistle.

  A great, sweet peace dropped on the heart of Terry Hollis. Now he felt hewas at home. He went back to his work.

  But in the midmorning Joe Pollard came to him and grunted at the swathTerry had driven into the heart of the lodgepole pines.

  "I wanted junk for the fire," he protested; "not enough to build a house.But I got a little errand for you in town, Terry. You can give El Sangrea stretching down the road?"

  "Of course."

  It gave Terry a little prickling feeling of resentment to be orderedabout. But he swallowed the resentment. After all, this was labor of hisown choosing, though he could not but wonder a little, because JoePollard no longer pressed him to take back the money he had lost. And hereverted to the talk of Kate the night before. That three hundred dollarswas now an anchor holding him to the service of her father. And heremembered, with a touch of dismay, that it might take a year of ordinarywages to save three hundred dollars. Or more than a year.

  It was impossible to be downhearted long, however. The morning was asfresh as a rose, and the four men came out of the house with Pollard tosee El Sangre dancing under the saddle. Terry received the commission fora box of shotgun cartridges and the money to pay for them.

  "And the change," said Pollard liberally, "don't worry me none. Steparound and make yourself to home in town. About coming back--well, when Isend a man into town, I figure on him making a day of it. S'long, Terry!"

  "Hey," called Slim, "is El Sangre gun-shy?"

  "I suppose so."

  The stallion quivered with eagerness to be off.

  "Here's to try him."

  The gun flashed into Slim's hand and boomed. El Sangre bolted straightinto the air and landed on legs of jack-rabbit qualities that flung himsidewise. The hand and voice of Terry quieted him, while the others stoodaround grinning with delight at the fun and at the beautifulhorsemanship.

  "But what'll he do if you pull a gun yourself?" asked Joe Pollard,showing a sudden concern.

  "He'll stand for it--long enough," said Terry. "Try him!"

  There was a devil in Slim that morning. He snatched up a shining bit ofquartz and hurled it--straight at El Sangre! There was no warning--just ajerk of the arm and the stone came flashing.

  "Try your gun--on that!"

  The words were torn off short. The heavy gun had twitched into the handof Terry, exploded, and the gleaming quartz puffed into a shower ofbright particles that danced toward the earth. El Sangre flew into aparoxysm of educated bucking of the most advanced school. The steadyvoice of Terry Hollis brought him at last to a quivering stop. The riderwas stiff in the saddle, his mouth a white, straight line.

  He shoved his revolver deliberately back into the holster.

  The four men had drawn together, still muttering with wonder. Luck mayhave had something to do with the success of that snapshot, but it wassuch a feat of marksmanship as would be remembered and talked about.

  "Dugan!" said Terry huskily.

  Slim lunged forward, but he was ill at ease.

  "Well, kid?"

  "It seemed to me," said Terry, "that you threw that stone at El Sangre. Ihope I'm wrong?"

  "Maybe," growled Slim. He flashed a glance at his companions, not at alleager to push this quarrel forward to a conclusion in spite of his knownprowess. He had been a little irritated by the adulation which had beenshown to the son of Black Jack the night before. He was still moreirritated by the display of fine riding. For horsemanship and clevergunplay were the two main feathers in the cap of Slim Dugan. He hadthrown the stone simply to test the qualities of this new member of thegang; the snapshot had stunned him. So he glanced at his companions. Ifthey smiled, it meant that they took the matter lightly. But they werenot smiling; they met his glance with expressions of uniform gravity. Totorment a nervous horse is something which does not fit with the ways ofthe men of the mountain desert, even at their roughest. Besides, therewas an edgy irritability about Slim Dugan which had more than once wonhim black looks. They wanted to see him tested now by a foeman who seemedworthy of his mettle. And Slim saw that common desire in his flickeringside glance. He turned a cold eye on Terry.

  "Maybe," he repeated. "But maybe I meant to see what you could do with agun."

  "I thought so," said Terry through his teeth. "Steady, boy!"

  El Sangre became a rock for firmness. There was not a quiver in one ofhis long, racing muscles. It was a fine tribute to the power of therider.

  "I thought you might be trying out my gun," repeated Terry. "Are youentirely satisfied?"

  He leaned a little in the saddle. Slim moistened his lips. It was a hardquestion to answer. The man in the saddle had become a quivering bundleof nerves; Slim could see the twitching of the lips, and he knew what itmeant. Instinctively he fingered one of the broad bright buttons of hisshirt. A man who could hit a glittering thrown stone would undoubtedly beable to hit that stationary button. The thought had elements in it thatwere decidedly unpleasant. But he had gone too far. He dared not recedenow if he wished to hold up his head again among his fellows--and fear ofdeath had never yet controlled the actions of Slim Dugan.

  "I dunno," he remarked carelessly. "I'm a sort of curious gent. It takesmore than one lucky shot to make me see the light."

  The lips of Terry worked a moment. The companions of Slim Dugan scatteredof one accord to either side. There was no doubting the gravity of thecrisis which had so suddenly sprung up. As for Joe Pollard, he stood inthe doorway in the direct line projected from Terry to Slim and beyond.There was very little sentiment in the body of Joe Pollard. Slim hadalways been a disturbing factor in the gang. Why not? He bit his lipsthoughtfully.

  "Dugan," said Terry at length, "curiosity is a very fine quality, and Iadmire a man who has it. Greatly. Now, you may notice that my gun is inthe holster again. Suppose you try me again and see how fast I can get itout of the leather--and hit a target."

  The challenge was entirely direct. There was a perceptible tightening inthe muscles of the men. They were nerving themselves to hear the crack ofa gun at any instant. Slim Dugan, gathering his nerve power, fenced for amoment more of time. His narrowing eyes were centering on one spot onTerry's body--the spot at which he would attempt to drive his bullet, andhe chose the pocket of Terry's shirt. It steadied him, gave him his oldself-confide
nce to have found that target. His hand and his brain grewsteady, and the thrill of the fighter's love of battle entered him.

  "What sort of a target d'you want?" he asked.

  "I'm not particular," said Hollis. "Anything will do for me--even abutton!"

  It jarred home to Slim--the very thought he had had a moment before. Hefelt his certainty waver, slip from him. Then the voice of Pollard boomedout at them:

  "Keep them guns in their houses! You hear me talk? The first man thatmakes a move I'm going to drill! Slim, get back into the house. Terry,you damn meateater, git on down that hill!"

  Terry did not move, but Slim Dugan stirred uneasily, turned, and said:"It's up to you, chief. But I'll see this through sooner or later!"

  And not until then did Terry turn his horse and go down the hill withouta backward look.

 
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